Donald Trump’s stump speeches are not, as most are, the product of careful tweaking and calibration, a search for the sweet spot between animating one’s supporters and drawing in new ones. Instead, his speeches are a desultory, malicious accounting of winners and losers, and a call to often violent action against the latter. His rallies are, by design, a feedback loop of self-validation.
Trump doesn’t care what everyone else thinks of his plan to bar Muslims from the United States of America, because he knows his supporters will love it. Each campaign event builds on the last. If the increasingly dangerous racism and xenophobia he tosses into the petri dish of his rallies thrives to the chants of “Trump, Trump!” and “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” then it only provokes him to ramp it up.
“They love me” is one of Trump’s favorite refrains, one that, along with his racism and calls to silence and “rough up” detractors, has caused pundits to waver between classifying him as a narcissist and a fascist.
There’s another equally valid way of seeing Trump: that he is the (perhaps unintended) consequence of religious conservatives’ quest for a politician-savior.
Trump has smashed the religious right’s formula for presidential primaries into little bits. For several decades, the religious right has imposed a strict litmus test: oppose abortion, oppose same-sex marriage, tell your salvation story, talk about your biblical worldview, the Christian nation, the shining city on the hill.
Donald Trump doesn’t have a salvation story. He is, in his mind, the savior, The Art of the Deal his scripture, and “make America great again” his testimony. He’s erased Jesus (anyone’s Jesus, whether you’re a conservative Christian nationalist or a progressive, social justice Christian) from the campaign.
Just as Trump appeals to voters who say they are tired of politicians-as-usual, he appeals to voters weary of theo-politicking as usual. No more false piety. No more favorite Bible verses. Let’s go straight for a bellicose, xenophobic, nationalist id. Unlike his “weak” rivals, Trump isn’t afraid to deliver the “truth” about Muslims.
As I wrote back in August, Trump has exposed rifts within the religious right, and that continues to be true. While evangelical leaders have taken to the pages of the country’s leading newspapers to denounce Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump still draws significant support from evangelical voters. According to last week’s Quinnipiac University poll, Trump has the support of 24 percent of white evangelical voters nationwide, tied with Ted Cruz, who is on an upswing of late, and ahead of one-time evangelical favorite Ben Carson.
Trump didn’t invent the roots of this frenzy driving his campaign, nor is he the first demagogue with a huge megaphone to call for banning Muslims from the United States. Yesterday, in promoting his plan to ban Muslims, Trump cited a dubious poll conducted for the “very highly respected” Center for Security Policy in support of his proposal. While the Center for Security Policy and its president, Frank Gaffney, indeed are respected and promoted in certain circles, in 2011 Gaffney was banished from the Conservative Political Action Conference because American Conservative Union board members considered him a “crazy bigot” who made the tin foil hat charge that the board had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. At the conference, a Center for Security Policy employee handed out a flyer that described shari’ah as a supremacist program that justifies the destruction of Christian churches and parishioners” and “the replacement of our constitutional republic. . . .with a theocratic Islamic caliphate governing according to shari’ah.”
In its 2010 conspiratorial report, “Sharia: The Threat to America,” the Center for Security Policy named retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, as a “team leader” in this imagined fight against shari’ah. Boykin has said Islam is “not a religion” but a “totalitarian way of life.” Since 2012, Boykin has been the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, the leading religious right political organization.
Just last week, Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University, told students at the school’s convocation they should carry guns because “I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”
For the evangelicals who are (rightfully) horrified by Trump’s latest, perhaps it might be time to put Islamophobia at the top of their religious freedom agenda, way, way above wedding cakes and insurance coverage for IUDs.
Is there good news in the latest Monmouth University poll in Iowa, which has Cruz leading Trump among that state’s all-important evangelical voters, by a 30 to 18 percent margin? Yesterday Cruz offered no condemnation of Trump, saying only Trump’s Muslim “shutdown” plan “is not my policy.” If he continues to rise, Cruz may very well be the beneficiary of Trump’s reinvention of the religious right’s ideal savior-politician.